The Reconstructivist by Emma Parrella
I take a step out the door, and my foot sinks about an inch into the grass. We’ve had night and day rain for the past week, but a man’s still got to do chores— I can already hear Bessie mooing. I pull my jacket tight around me and trudge around back to the shed. Pulling open the tall red door, I grimace at the sight in front of me.
“Oh, Bess, you’ve fallen down again,” I rush over to her, “now just stay still, and we’ll have you right back up.” Bessie’s been a bit ill as of late, so I’ve rigged up a jack with a sort of platform that helps me put her right whenever she falls. She’s certainly a bit too heavy for me to lift on my own (though she’s been losing weight as of late) so I just thank the Lord for simple machines. I prop her against the side of her stall, so she might have a bit of assistance for her weak legs. We used to keep her outside before she got sick, but now I’ve outfitted a stall all nice for her, hay and water and nice and warm. There’s a smell I can’t seem to do anything about, but cows don’t mind smell much. It’s hardly worth trying, but I pull out a milking stool and bucket next. As expected, Bess is bone-dry— she hasn’t given milk for a long time. She’s an old cow, though, and certainly far out of her heyday, so it’s no surprise to me. I pat her flank and smile. “Sorry ‘bout that, Bessie. Bye now.” I squelch my way over to the chicken coop, and climb inside. We’re twelve chickens strong, and they’re all fast asleep this morning. It’s funny, actually— I was sure I heard clucking, but perhaps one woke up and then fell right back asleep. I carefully pick up the first hen to check for eggs. Nothing. The next eleven hens sadly yield the same result. I nuzzle each one as I pick them up— I’ve heard that that can help them lay, and besides, I’m just much more sentimental than any self-respecting farmer ought to be. I’m not sure they’ll ever lay again, though. Truth be told, I’m beginning to suspect that whatever keeps Bess from producing is the same thing that keeps the hens from laying. Even might be what effects that terrible weakness in Fannie and the kids. Speaking of Fannie and the kids, I realize suddenly that the sun’s rather high in the sky— I must’ve spent a bit too long helping Bessie up this morning. I pull my hood over my head and slide through the mud back to the house, making sure to wipe my feet before I walk in— Fannie’d kill me if I tracked mud in.
I pull off my work boots, and then head upstairs to wake Fannie first. She’s beautiful when she sleeps. I stand for a second, watching her, and then walk over and press my lips to her forehead.
“Mornin’ darling,” I whisper. I lightly brush her eyes open. Fannie and the kids, like I mentioned, have been awful ill lately, and greatly weak. I have to do practically everything for them.
“Morning, pumpkin,” she responds, and I feel just terribly sad for her— she’s so weak her lips barely even move. I help her dress, and then I pick her up bridal style to carry her down to the kitchen for breakfast. Her head falls against my chest and her eyes drop shut. I laugh.
“C’mon, now Fannie, you’ve got to wake up!” She doesn’t move, but instead softly sighs. We reach the kitchen, and I carefully put lay her in a chair. She sags to one side, and I dive to catch her before she falls and right her.
“Thanks, hon,” she says quietly. Fannie’s always quiet, now, ever since she got sick. It’s a wonder that I’m such a picture of health while they’re all so afflicted. Though, I think it quite possible that the Lord left me be so I could care for them. Which, of course reminds me I must be getting the kids up too now. Jack greets me with “Morning, dad!”, and his voice so bright reminds me of when he used to run around the farm with the other local boys. Fannie used to have to holler for fifteen minutes at least to get him to come in for supper. It’s sad to see him like this, even more than the others. I carry him down too, and set him next to his ma, and leave them to talk while I wake Beth.
She just groans when I wake her— sick or no, she’s a teenage girl. I carry her down, too, and then set myself to making breakfast. It’s a shame, Fannie used to make eggs like nobody else could, but her household duties fell to me when she fell sick. Doesn’t matter, anyway— there’ve been no eggs from our hens, and the general store’s been abandoned, so there’s no chance of eggs there. Luckily, no illness could make the crops stop growing, so I start water boiling to boil some potatoes. I carry on with Fanny for a couple minutes while the potatoes cook, as she seems to think I should’ve sliced and fried them. Frying isn’t good without butter, though, and even if Bessie was giving milk, I barely have time for all I have to do without churning butter as well.
The breakfast is as good as any, although you wouldn’t think it from the potatoes left on the rest of their plates. Beth has always been picky, and lately she’s just been a bit too good for boiled vegetables. Fannie’s told me she’s much too frail to eat, although I think she just doesn’t much like my cooking. Jack, I’ve no explanation for except the affliction. It’s terrible sad to see a boy so weak. When I was his age, I ate no less than four eggs for breakfast each morning, and he can’t even stomach a bit of a potato. It’s no worse than normal, though, so I set them each in their typical spots.
I carefully lift Fannie and take her to her favorite chair. It faces a window, so she can look out and see Jack play. She loves to watch out of windows. She’s always been quiet-like. Part of why I love her. I set her down gently, and then pick up Beth the same way and set her next to her mother. They’re thick as thieves– like to gossip about the other villagefolk and gad on and such. I pull out an embroidery hoop for each of them and carefully place them in their hands. Well, least, I’m careful with Fannie. Perhaps Beth is feeling a bit more frail today, or mayhaps I was a bit too harsh with her, because as I bend her wrist to give her her embroidery, her wrist snaps clean, and I’m left with three hands and her with one. She shrieks, and I go to get our medical kit.
Pulling out bandages, I reposition her wrist and pull a needle and thread from the kit. She squeals as I begin to stitch, but I steadily continue and soon the job’s done. Her blood’s dry from affliction, so it’s fairly clean. I’ve been getting better with stitches. Beth always shrieks and squirms when I have to sew her up– but then, she’s been calling me to kill spiders since she was six, so I s’pose a bit of squeamishness isn’t surprising. I wrap it with bandages to prevent infection, and then kiss her forehead and let her be.
I’ve been improving my mending. The first day of the ailment, I was terrible. I was down in the storm cellar, putting away some cured meats for the winter, when I heard a horrible commotion upstairs. I ran up, but I’d locked myself in by accident. By the time I was up, it was all quiet. I came up to the house almost levelled. I believe a whirlwind must’ve stormed through while I was down there. And there they were, all so sick. Fannie was in the kitchen, lying as if dead. Peaceful like, but a big gash on her forehead that slowly dripped red. I mended her up first. Frantically. I knew I couldn’t lose her. I dug through rubble for the medical kit. Pulling up beams, I found Beth, probably the sickest of them all. She was just red, red, red, too red to see where the injuries were. I scooped her up too, and set her by her mother, and then I stitched, big uneven stitches straight into Fannie’s forehead. The bleeding stopped, but she was sick for good. Then Beth. I ran to get water, to try and wash her off, and there was Jack. He was pinned down by a big wooden beam that’d fallen from the house. He almost looked asleep, but he was the first one to talk to me. I saw him, and I called out his name. I can still hear it, crystal clear.
“Pa! Come help!” I reckoned he’d been running in to tell his ma about the tornado when it hit the house, from the way he was facing. I lugged the beam off him, hauled some water, and then brought him in. It took hours to fix them up. I wasn’t much handy at it at first, and they were badly sick then. I put them back together, though.
I’m thinking about all of this as I pick up Jack. I always take him out to his spot last. He likes to sit on the front stoop and whittle. I always sit a couple minutes with him and whittle. I’ve rebuilt our whole home from the ground up, and I made sure to put in a good stoop for sitting and whittling. I gather knives for us both, and find two sturdy bits of wood, and start carving a whistle. He just looks at his wood. Sometimes, he tells me, he’s a bit of trouble starting a carving.
Sometimes, we talk while we sit. Other times, we just sit like this, quiet. Today’s a quiet day. I look out on rolling fields, the road that leads to a town decimated then abandoned. I look at my son. A mop of blonde, lazy blue eyes, and a wound stretching ear to forehead looking as fresh as the day he got it. It hurt him, surely, but I like it. It reminds me of the family I reconstructed from the brink of death. The blacksmith couldn’t save his family from the affliction, and neither could the cooper. But here I sit, whittling with my son, alive and well.
Hello! My name is Emma Parrella. I’m a senior in high school and I’m submitting a short story I’ve written for publishing. I’m from New Jersey, I like to read and knit, and I also like writing. I typically write fantasy and some horror, specifically short stories. I’m also not sure what else goes in a biographical statement. I hope you like my story!
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.